bilawal bhutto, rahul gandhi
They usually have famous fathers or mothers whose political fortunes they are destined to inherit. Some try to have it all as their birthright, while others work hard to earn their credentials.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Rahul Gandhi, and Justin Trudeau seemingly are political heir apparents.  Bilawal’s mother, late Benazir Bhutto, was the two-time prime minister of Pakistan. Rahul’s father, Rajeev Gandhi, and his grandmother, Indra Gandhi, were both prime ministers of India.  With Justin Trudeau, it was his famous father, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who is one of Canada’s most famous, and perhaps the most controversial, prime ministers.

Despite the obvious similarities in their political paths, their journeys are quite different. While Bilawal is fortunate to have the political throne handed over to him without effort, Justin had to work his own way up the political ladder to get to the stage where he is about to win the leadership of Canada’s Liberal Party. And whereas Rahul initially worked independently in London and later founded a company in India, his political career is largely derived from his political inheritance.

The three young men share several common traits. To begin with, the three have inherited their parents’ good looks along with their political and material fortunes. Bilawal lost his mother, and Rahul lost both his father and grandmother to politically motivated violence. Justin’s father, while being the prime minister, also faced severe unrest and militancy (including bombings) in the late sixties and early seventies.  While  Trudeau was unharmed, a provincial minister, Pierre Laporte, was murdered in October 1970 after being kidnapped by a separatist group in Quebec.

The three men were also educated at distinguished universities. Bilawal attended Oxford University (Christ Church), Rahul obtained a Masters degree at Cambridge University (Trinity College), and Justin attended McGill University and the University of British Columbia. They are also expected to lead the same parties in the future that their parents once lead. Bilawal is set to lead the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Rahul is destined to head the Indian National Congress (INC), and Justin is likely to win the leadership contest for the Liberal Party of Canada.

The CEO syndrome of heir apparents

Unlike the western countries, where those who inherit the political or financial fortunes are expected to rise through the ranks, the Asian and Middle Eastern practices have been quite different.  It is expected that the sons, and increasingly daughters as of late, will inherit their parents’ political fortunes regardless. Thus, when Bilawal and Asif Zardari were declared co-chairpersons after the sudden death of Benazir in December 2007, the PPP converted from a democratic political institution to a fiefdom where the survivors inherited the throne from the parent. A genuine political party instead would have held elections for the leadership.

Rahul followed the same secured path in politics that was reinforced by inheritance rather than by demonstrated success in political efficacy. In May 2004, Rahul contested and won the LokSabha’s (the Parliament) elections from the same constituency, Amethi in UP, that elected his late father. After his father’s death, Rahul’s mother, Sonia Gandhi, retained the Amethi constituency, and in 2004 made the way for Rahul. She herself contested from the adjacent constituency of Rae Bareilly. Since January 2013, Rahul is also the newly minted Vice President of the Indian National Congress.

While Bilawal has yet to have a career of his own, Rahul did work in the IT industry, albeit briefly. Both young men, however, have no real careers beside being politicians and office bearers of political parties headed once by their parents.

Justin Trudeau, on the other hand, has had a career. Besides being a politician and the son of a former prime minister, Justin was a school teacher. He earned a Bachelor of education from the University of British Columbia and taught social studies and French in Vancouver. Afterwards, he pursued post-graduate studies at McGill University, which he left in 2008 to seek political office. Unlike Bilawal and Rahul, Justin had to contest and win the nomination from the riding association before he was allowed to be the liberal candidate in the elections.  He won his riding by defeating the incumbent from Bloc Québécois. Later in the 2011 elections, Justin was able to retain his seat in the Parliament.

The path to party leadership

While Justin is a member of the Canadian Parliament and the son of a former prime minister of Canada, he had no advanced standing in the contest for the leadership of the Liberal Party, which he started to pursue in 2012. He led a grass root movement from coast to coast to build support for his candidacy. In fact, his good looks and his family name have proven to be his greatest challenge in the understated Canadian political culture where even a hint of entitlement can sink political careers without warning. Whereas he is the frontrunner in the leadership race that will conclude later in April, he got there not because of, but in spite of, his last name.

Justin's story is a story of a mature people and a smart electorate that votes for ideas and not necessarily for personalities. Canadians have bought into the vision and sincerity of their leaders who had to earn the respect of their fellow citizens with years of hard work and commitment to public service. Bilawal and Rahul’s is a story of a people who fall for personalities and not ideas, a people who subscribe to dynasties, and not to the freedom of thought and mind.

The willingness to submit to the rule of dynasties is what has prolonged the success of those who inherit political leadership rather than earning it through hard work.  This will change only if people were to vote for what is good for the society collectively rather than what is good for their cast, tribe, or sect.

Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. He can be reached by email at

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